You may have seen the documentary or heard about Prince Harry using Eye Movement Desensitization Repossessing (EMDR) to help with the effects of anxiety and trauma from the death of his mother 20 years ago. That news may have you wondering if you can use EMDR for Social Anxiety.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
Social Anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a disorder involving discomfort in social situations. You feel anxiety and fear of being negatively judged and evaluated by others. The anxiety caused by this can lead to isolation. This can contribute to further deterioration of social skills and confidence, which in turn, reinforces the existing social anxiety in a frustrating cycle.
Some triggers for this anxiety include:
- Being introduced to other people
- Getting teased or criticized
- Being watched or observed while doing something
- Feeling insecure and out of place in social situations
While there are other therapies used for Social Anxiety, EMDR can also be used instead of or in addition to these therapies. EMDR changes the way your brain stores memories.
An EMDR therapist can help you change the way you think about social situations through a process of targeting the negative memories while simultaneously utilizing bilateral stimulation techniques. These techniques can be side-to-side eye movements, sound movements alternating between your ears, or handheld devices that tap in each hand alternately. The process of EMDR for social anxiety removes the negativity from your thinking concerning social experiences and replaces it with more positive imagery and feelings.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to reduce distressing emotions associated with traumatic memories. It involves meeting with a trained EMDR therapist, and on average takes up to 12 sessions to clear a traumatic memory. There are 8 steps in the process.
When this 8-step protocol is applied to fearful events, they can be reprocessed and changed to harmless memories. This relieves the anxiety, guilt, anger, fear, and body tension brought on by negative experiences.
1.History and Treatment Planning:
You develop a secure working relationship with the therapist and select the traumatic events that you wish to work on. The therapist makes clinical judgements about the pacing of the work, given your internal and external resources to support you in the work.
2. Client Preparation:
The therapist will give you information about EMDR therapy. They will also determine what method of bilateral stimulation is best for you, and might help you practice eye movements. The therapist also ensures that you have the resources and coping strategies you need to support the work.
The therapist will ask you to recall the traumatic event with a vivid image in your mind relating to the memory you wish to work on. They will also help you notice what emotions, sensations, and beliefs are present as you have the event in your awareness. The therapist gets a baseline measurement of how disturbing recalling the event is for you, as well as how true the belief you have about the event feels to you.
During this phase you will focus on the memory you’ve chosen. Simultaneously you will engage in eye movements. As you progress, new thoughts, feelings, images, and body sensations may emerge, and the memory loses its negative charge and becomes desensitized.
This phase pairs the memory with a new, life-giving, positive belief. For example, “I survived it and I am strong” rather than the former belief of “I am disgusting and weak’. Bilateral stimulation helps strengthen this new belief until it feels totally true.
6. Body scan:
In this step, the therapist asks you to think about the original memory to see if there is any emotional distress or physical tension remaining in your body. If there is, the remaining distress or tension is reprocessed.
During the close of each session, the therapist again measures the level of disturbance you’re experiencing and the believability of new cognitions engendered in you. You’ll also learn what to expect from one session to the next and techniques to deal with feelings or new memories that emerge.
In the next session, the therapist evaluates your current psychological state and ensures the effects of treatment are still maintained. In addition, you will address any new memories that may have emerged since the last session.
A unique aspect of EMDR is that you may not have to discuss any of your disturbing memories in detail. For example, the therapist may ask “What event do you remember that made you feel distressed?” and you can say, “It was what my father said to me in front of everyone”. You can go through the process without the therapist eliciting any extra information from you.
Why Does EMDR Work
While it’s not fully understood exactly how EMDR works, one theory is that the bilateral stimulation gives your brain something to focus on while it is processing painful emotions and beliefs (“dual attention stimulation”). This essentially distracts you as the processing is happening. Another theory is that thinking about a traumatic memory and following something with the eyes requires more memory capacity than is available. Therefore, the distressing memory is not completely accessed and loses its strength.
Another common explanation is that EMDR’s bilateral stimulation mimics what happens in the REM phase of sleep – the phase where traumatic or negative experiences are processed. Specifically, the bilateral stimulation triggers a firing of neurons, alternating between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This allows for previously incomplete memories to finally be processed.
Regardless of the exact mechanism of action, EMDR allows exposure to traumatic memories in a way that results in those memories no longer being disturbing or limiting to your life today.
How EMDR Helps Anxiety
EMDR therapy initially focused on treating post-traumatic stress. However, there is a close relationship between a trauma and anxiety. Over the last 20 years, there have been at least six randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigating the use of EMDR for adults with anxiety disorders. Four of them demonstrated a positive effect on panic and phobic symptoms.
The EMDR method was developed by Francine Shapiro, an American psychotherapist. According to her model, stressful and/or traumatic experiences that are not adequately processed, especially if they occur during your early years, can result in impaired coping skills and increased vulnerability to later stressful events. This can lead to the development of trauma and stress-related disorders, as well as anxiety disorders. The use of EMDR in the treatment of anxiety disorders targets the processing of related disturbing memories, which in turn reduces or eliminates the symptoms of anxiety.
Although sports anxiety, performance anxiety, and test anxiety are forms of social anxiety disorder, none of the above-mentioned RCTs involved participants with a formal diagnosis for any of these. However, four trials were completed specifically to investigate EMDR treatment for test anxiety. All of them produced significant and rapid reductions in symptoms.
If you are looking for help with social anxiety, you may now be thinking, “How do I find EMDR Therapy for anxiety near me?” If you are in the northern Illinois area, Life Care Wellness has EMDR Therapists on staff. Please reach out to us in our Glen Ellyn, Chicago (Jefferson Park), or Sycamore offices.
Rhonda Kelloway, LCSW, SEP
Rhonda Kelloway is the owner and principal therapist at Life Care Wellness, a group psychotherapy practice in Glen Ellyn, Sycamore, and Chicago (Jefferson Park neighborhood), Illinois. She is a trauma specialist utilizing a Somatic Experiencing framework to utilize the body’s wisdom in healing. She also uses EMDR and a variety of traditional psychotherapy approaches in her work. In addition to being a psychotherapist, she is a trained divorce and family mediator.